Response to a question
2007-12-18 by Shannon Kershner
I received a question after posting my blog entry last week asking if I knew the direction my sermon would take, or if I had an outline. I can do better than that! I will post the sermon. I always preach 4th Advent texts on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. Our 4th Advent Sunday is always a crazy mixture of hymnody, poetry, dance, drama, and Scripture. So here is what I preached about Joseph on 12-16-07:
Advent 3 (4th Sunday texts)
I am someone who never feels out of place at a cemetery. I suppose that’s partly due to my job. But I always find cemeteries fascinating. In particular, I like to walk around family plots so I can try to figure out who belongs with whom and look at how they are all remembered.
For example, most of my father’s family are all buried in a small cemetery in Ardmore, OK. And, simply by walking around in the plot, you can tell quite a bit about them. You have my great grandfather, a man I never knew, whose given name was Andrew but known as Papa. On his tombstone “Our Papa” is carved at the top. Then, there is the spot for my great-grandmother, Dovie, known as Nanny to me. Her tombstone simply reads “Our grandmother.” Next to her is the grave of her son, Odelle, who died as a young pilot, killed during WWII.
Then, you have the graves for my grandmother, Dorothy, and my grandfather, Ivan. Both of them died after I was ordained, so Dad and I co-officiated their services. Whenever I see their gravestones, I think of those sacred moments that he and I shared. Their gravestones simply say “Our Mom” and “Our Dad.”
And when you walk around those plots and pay attention, you can also surmise a few things about my family tree. You can see that both Odelle and my Grandpa Ivan were military men who each served in time of war. You can get a picture of the generations and the spans of their lives. But, even more striking to me, you can tell just by the gravestone inscriptions how important relationships are in my family. All of their inscriptions describe them, first and foremost, by the place they held as a part of the Johnson clan: our mom, our dad, our grandmother, our grandfather.
And, you can also tell just by their gravestones that my father’s family all lived rather simple lives. There is nothing fancy about their gravestones just as there was nothing fancy about their lives. They all got married young and had kids. They all worked a variety of blue-collar jobs until their bodies gave out. For the most part, they all did the best they knew how to do. They were simply Papa, Nanny, Grandma Dorothy and Grandpa Ivan. Just by looking at their gravestones, you can make some pretty good assumptions about who they were and how they lived their lives. And then, you can make some pretty good assumptions about me and the way I live coming from that kind of family tree.
I am pretty sure that is why Matthew starts his telling of the Christmas story with his own trip through the graveyard of Joseph’s family. The first 17 verses of his Gospel form a long and detailed description of who begat whom, a genealogy that goes all the way back to Father Abraham and travels through Joseph to Jesus. I thought about reading all of it for you. But then I talked to a preacher who did that one year. He said that his congregation’s eyes glazed over beginning in verse 7 and he never quite got them back. I did not want to take that chance. However, I do want to talk about the gravestones we find in Matthew’s cemetery because, like in Ardmore, OK, you can tell a lot about the family by what is written.
We need to start at the very back of Matthew’s cemetery, back near the fence. That is where we see the large gravestone of the patriarch of this entire clan—Abraham. On his stone is etched “The father of Isaac, the father of Jacob.” Unfortunately it does not say “the husband of Sarah” nor does it list Ishmael as another son. Like I said, you can tell a lot about families by what is said or unsaid on the gravestones. And surrounding Abraham’s stone, in that same space near the fence, are stones for Jacob, Jacob’s son Judah, and Judah’s own sons Perez and Zerah.
Now—we do have to note that on Zerah’s stone, he is listed as “The son of Judah and Tamar.” You may or may not remember Tamar from Genesis 38, but let me just put it to you this way: You would expect to find the story of how Tamar got pregnant with Judah’s child on Jerry Springer rather than in Holy Scripture. Biblical family values, huh. But, I digress... We must keep walking through these tombstones, noting who begat whom and seeing what other interesting details are etched into the history.
And again, here on the gravestones in Matthew’s cemetery, we find some other idiosyncracies--- things that might just tell us a bit about Joseph’s family tree and therefore, about Joseph himself. We find three other tombstones on which the names of the mothers are etched alongside the fathers’. In this biblical cemetery, we have to admit it is very strange to see the names of women even listed. As Fred Craddock puts it, in those times, women were just “also” people. You know how the biblical writers say it, like with the feeding of the 5000: “There were five thousand men present, and also women and children[i].” Also people. So the fact that women’s names are listed in the cemetery of Joseph’s family is very, very interesting indeed. Don’t you wonder what that means? Don’t you wonder what that tells us about Joseph, and therefore, about Jesus—the baby he took in as his own?
But just as startling as it is to see the names of those mothers etched alongside the names of all the fathers, it is even more startling when you consider the women’s own family trees. None of them are Jewish! You have Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Not a single one of them is from Jewish lineage. This is scandalous. In Father Abraham’s cemetery, where we see gravestones that span 42 generations of covenant people, we see the names of an Arab woman, a Palestinian woman, and, what we would call today a Jordanian woman[ii]. All thought to be outsiders to the covenant. All thought to be outsiders to the family tree. But all etched in stone as a valid part of the family. Again, we have to wonder what that means. What does that tell us about Joseph, and therefore, about Jesus—the baby he took in as his own?
For it is obvious that the caretakers of Matthew’s cemetery, the ones who tended the plots of Joseph’s family, wanted us to make some assumptions about them from the inscriptions on the gravestones. They wanted to communicate to us some things about Joseph. Traits that may explain how he was able to go against the grain when Mary finally told him what was happening in her womb. For you remember that at this time, engagement was not just a promise between two people. It was a legal contract between families. You could only break an engagement by going to the courts. Papers had been signed. Families had made decisions. And Joseph was engaged to Mary.
But then she tells him she is pregnant. I imagine she probably tried to explain what had happened – the whole angel Gabriel story, the whole Holy Spirit overshadowing experience, but don’t you just know that the whole time she was speaking, Joseph was too stunned to really listen or to respond. He must have been sick to his stomach trying to figure out what to do. He knew what the Bible told him to do. Deuteronomy 22: “She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people.” That is what our Bible says.
But, thanks be to God, Joseph was not a biblical literalist. He did not just open it, pick up the verse, and slam it down on Mary’s head. Scripture tells us Joseph was a good man, a righteous man. He loved his Bible and he probably knew it backwards and forwards. But Joseph had also come to know a few other things about God that affected his interpretation of his beloved Scripture. And I think he knew those things because of what we saw on those gravestones in his family’s cemetery.
Joseph knew that God would sometimes work in ways that upset the applecart, in ways that were completely unexpected. All he had to do in order to remember that was to walk through his family’s cemetery and see all those women’s names on the tombstones. None of his other friends had women’s names etched on the stones of their family plot. It was just not done. So Joseph knew already that God sometimes did things that were “just not done.” He already knew that in his own family’s history God had thrown some curve balls, showering down grace upon those considered underserving and including those considered outcast and powerless.
Can’t you just see Joseph taking his Scripture to the cemetery and walking around those gravestones? Can’t you just see him praying for guidance? And then, can’t you just see him finally sitting down, maybe beside King David’s fancy gravestone, and deciding that he loved the living God, a God full of merciful surprises, far too much to use the Bible as a weapon for harm against Mary. After all, his entire family tree was full of people who never got what they deserved, but who were always recipients of grace upon grace. Think Abraham and Hagar. Think Jacob and Esau. Think David and Bathsheba. All of those stories were part of who Joseph was. All of those stories, all of his family’s own lineage, made it impossible for Joseph to simply be legalistic in his faith.
And so, with all the gravestone inscriptions and family stories running through his mind, Joseph decides to simply dismiss Mary quietly. He decides to simply let her go in a way that would keep her safe from harm, in a way that would keep that baby safe from harm. And immediately upon making that decision, as he goes to sleep that night with a sense of peace about what he was going to do, Joseph gets thrown a holy curve ball of his own. The angel comes to him in a dream, just as the angel had come to so many of his ancestors, tells him not to be afraid, and then tells Joseph the awkward truth about the baby Jesus and how he came to be created in Mary.
And then we are told that Joseph woke up from the dream and quietly followed the holy instructions. He woke up and took Mary as his wife, determining to be the best father he could to this holy child. He simply decided to live out of faith rather than fear.
We really should not be surprised at his response or his willingness to step out into new territory in faith. After all, look at whose graves make up his family plot. We see plenty of faithful scoundrels. Plenty of outsiders. Plenty of human beings who made plenty of mistakes, but all who kept being forgiven and brought back in by the living God. A God who, in Joseph’s eyes, was defined by mercy and the capacity for surprise. A God who, in Joseph’s eyes, was defined by a penchant for throwing curveballs and acting in ways that were totally unexpected, but totally life-giving and salvific.
It really is amazing what all you can learn about a person by walking around in his or her family’s cemetery plot, isn’t it. Thank God for Joseph and his willingness to learn from God’s action in his family tree. For Joseph’s response of faith has affected thousands of generations since. And the size of his family plot has grown way beyond what he could have ever imagined.
Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner
December 16, 2007
[i] Craddock, Fred. The Cherry Log Sermons. “God Is with Us.” Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Rev. Dr. Craddock was the one who helped open my eyes to the reason for the genealogy and helped me to envision it as a cemetery.
[ii] Again, an insight triggered by Craddock’s sermon.
"Lectionary Homiletics" Highlights and Kershner
2007-12-18 by David von Schlichten
Shannon Johnson Kershner, our guest blogger soaking in the tub this week, focuses on Joseph, particularly his refusal to be a biblical literalist when it comes to how to respond to Mary's pregnancy and his choice to respond instead by imitating God's inclusive grace. Scroll down for more.
Also, in the “Free Samples from Lectionary Homiletics” section under Share It!, you will find a thorough, incisive exegesis of Matthew 1:18-25 by W. Sibley Towner.
Here are my highlights from the articles in Lectionary Homiletics this week.
David Carr reveals the complex ambiguity of this passage that we Christian are hasty to Christmasize. He explains that it is unclear who the baby is and what his significance is. Is the prophecy a judgment on Ahaz' lack of faith, or is the prophecy assurance that God will help us despite our unbelief? Either message is salutary for us Christians.
Suzanne Mayer regards Ahaz as an example of absolute power corrupting absolutely. God offers him a sign, but Ahaz says no, not out of humility, but out of a show of humility that has underneath it a lack of faith. Ahaz has likely established an alliance with Assyria and is not trusting in God.
Mayer goes on to write about the importance of one being able to surrender oneself to God, something Ahaz appears unwilling to do. She borrows from Henri Nouwen, who writes of a river encountering a desert. The river will dry up. It must surrender to the sun, allowing itself to become a cloud that can float beyond the desert to provide fruitful rain.
“Preaching the Lesson”
Anna Carter Florence also writes of the foolishness of Ahaz and declares that this text reminds us to follow God's orders even if doing so means breaking the rules. Florence writes, “[ . . . ] consistency has never been one of God's strong suits. God has always held the right to change course, switch gears, about face” (p. 32). In other words, Ahaz should not be defying God but complying with God.
Because Ahaz will not comply, God gets to pick the sign, and it is that of a woman having a child. Florence expresses delight in such “everyday” signs - rainbows, yeast, stars, and babies - because we humans encounter these signs regularly. Therefore, the signs are frequent reminders of God's promises. Thus, whenever we behold a pregnant woman or a child, we can remember, “God [is] with us.”
Every child reminds us that God is with us, so “No child left behind” is far more than a political slogan. Florence avers that the statement is how we are to live.
This idea that every child reminds us that God is with us is a remarkable insight, and I will probably preach on it this Sunday.
My Christmas Eve sermon will likely be based on the sermon for this week. Martin B. Copenhaver, in “Home for Christmas,” waxes perspicacious when he writes that many of us yearn for a Christmas of old that we have never experienced. We ache for the white Christmas that we say we used to know, but that, in truth, we have never known.
Copenhaver imagines his ideal Christmas being one with relatives who could not really be all together because they did not live at the same time.
When we think of being home for Christmas, we are partly “[ . . . ] homesick, not for some home of our past, but for a home we have never seen and cannot readily imagine, a home that even our dreams cannot fully trace” (p. 34).
Copenhaver concludes that what we are really yearning for is God.
Did you ever have one of those experiences in which someone put into words a feeling or thought that you didn't know you had? Martin has done that for me with this sermon. The experience is mildly epiphanic. I'm going to take time to absorb this, and then I'll write more. Thanks, Martin.
Staring at the bubbles while sitting in the tub, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
2007-12-17 by CJ Teets
Our guest blogger is The Reverend Shannon Johnson Kershner, pastor of Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, TX. Shannon has been a speaker on Day1. See her first reflections below.
There are several very good sermons from last week to read in Sermon Feedback Cafe. They have promised us live Christmas music in the Cafe this week, to go along with the Spiced Christmas Coffee (if you still have work to do, tell them to make it "plain").
If you are not yet a subscriber, a world of resources is waiting for you in Journal and Back Issues Sermons! There are over 50 articles and resources per week.
Also, we are at a record pace for registrations for the Festival of Homiletics. If you plan to attend, register at this website (see link on HOMEPAGE).
Sitting in Matthew's Cemetery: Advent 4, Matthew 1:18-25
2007-12-14 by Shannon Kershner
So I have to be honest with you. I am always just a wee bit disappointed when it is Matthew’s year for Advent. Why? Because I do not get to talk much about Mary or Elizabeth. I do not get to sing Mary’s magnificat or imagine her running to Elizabeth’s house after the Angel Gabriel’s “Surprise!” visit. As a Protestant preacher, I just do not have very many opportunities to preach about the first disciple, Mary.
But, I do get over my disappointment rather quickly because I realize that Joseph never gets much of the spotlight either! And, Matthew gives us such great material as introduction to Joseph’s story. I love the fact that he starts with this genealogy, taking us from Abraham through David to Joseph and beyond. Fred Craddock, in his book The Cherry Log Sermons, speaks of this genealogy as a cemetery. That image has been helpful for me. I can just imagine Joseph getting the news from Mary and walking around the cemetery of his family tree struggling with what to do and praying for guidance.
As he looks at all the gravestones, noting who is listed (Abraham) and who is not (Hagar and Sarah), Joseph must have been fascinated with what he found in his family tree. On four of the gravestones, he found the names of the mothers etched right next to the names of the fathers! You do not typically find that in a biblical family cemetery. Furthermore, not a single one of them was Jewish! They were all outsiders to the covenant. What might that mean? What might it tell us about Joseph, or even about Jesus, the baby he would take in as his own?
I imagine that as Joseph looked around at his own family tree, he might have concluded that God had a penchant for throwing curve balls and acting in unexpected (yet gracious) ways. Perhaps he realized that there was no way he would be able to be a biblical literalist when it came to what was happening to Mary. There was no way he could follow Deut. 22, casting her out and stoning her. It just did not fit with who he was. It just did not fit with who he knew God was. For as Joseph looked around in his family cemetery, he saw plenty of faithful scoundrels, plenty of outsiders, and plenty of very human people who made plenty of mistakes. And yet, Joseph knew that God kept bringing them back into relationship, back into covenant, back under the umbrella of grace. How could he not do the same with Mary?
And Joseph decided all of that even BEFORE the angel visited him! The angel’s visit adds even more thickness to his story. So I guess it is okay to preach Joseph’s perspective from time to time. After all, I still get to hear Mary pondering in her heart on Christmas Eve.
Shannon Johnson Kershner
Woodhaven Presbyterian Church
2007-12-14 by David Howell
"Water for Elephants", "Suffering and Overcoming"..."Santa's Scalloped Oysters"...Edmund Steimle...what do these have in common?
They are all in Share It!
A new book review is up on Water for Elephants. New holiday recipes are being posted in Divine Cuisine.
And be sure to read (and offer feedback) David von Schlichten's sermon for December 16 in Sermon Feedback Cafe (go to HOMEPAGE and to Share It!). In addition we have another sermon A GOOD WORD by Rick Brand.If you are not yet a subscriber, a world of resources is waiting for you in Journal and Back Issues Sermons! Over 50 articles and resources per week.
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